Making More Sustainable Businesses More Successful with Brendan Edgerton

September 14, 2021

Brendan is the Director of Circular Economy at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. He co-developed and oversees Factor10, WBCSD’s flagship circular economy project, convening 35+ companies from over 15 industries. Since joining WBCSD, Brendan has authored or contributed to over 15 publications, managed the creation of the Circular Electronics Partnership, contributed to the establishment of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste and oversaw the delivery of the Circular Transition Indicators. Brendan has an MBA from the Yale School of Management, a Master of Environmental Management from the Yale School of the Environment and a B.A. in Ecological Design from the University of California Santa Cruz.

John Shegerian: This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by Trajectory Energy Partners. Trajectory Energy Partners brings together landowners, electricity users and communities to develop solar energy projects with strong, local support. For more information on how trajectory is leading the solar revolution, please visit trajectoryenergy.com.

John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. I’m John Shegerian. I’m so honored to have with us today, from Geneva, Switzerland, Brendan Edgerton. Brendan, welcome to the Impact Podcast.

Brendan Edgerton: Thank you very much, John. Happy to be here.

John: Brendan, you’re an American. We’re going to get talking about that in a second. This is the first time. I’ve taped podcasts all around the world on Impact and on Green is Good, when it was called Green is Good. We’ve never done one from Geneva. You’re breaking ground again here.

Brendan: Well, yeah, appreciate the opportunity here.

John: All right. You are the director of the Circular Economy at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, WBCSD. Before we get talking about all that other fancy stuff and all the important work you’re doing there with your colleagues, give us the Brendan Edgerton backstory. How’d you end up in Geneva? How’d you end up doing the important work that you’re doing? Where’d you grow up? What really informed you, as you grew up, to want to do this great work?

Brendan: It’s a fun question. I’m originally from Los Angeles, California. Not too far from where you are right now, but a die-hard UCLA Bruins fan, Dodgers, Lakers, all the way through and went to college at UC Santa Cruz, the northern part of town there. Actually, that’s the place that changed the trajectory for where I was going. I took a contemporary architecture class, the spring quarter of freshman year.

There was 1 class on sustainable development, the whole course, and in that course, it felt like everything became clear that all of a sudden has blown away by this fact that we are living in a built environment that’s in contradiction with nature. Here’s an idea of going back to, in many ways, what we had before materials were incredibly inexpensive and very accessible and there’s building and harmonization with nature in the sustainability concepts and saying, let’s think about it from the very beginning of design and embedded into the whole construction process and how we use buildings.

That compelled me to create my own major and study ecological design focused after sustainable architecture and work with an architect, Bunlow[?] Partners while I was up there in Santa Cruz. It was a fantastic opportunity. I learned a lot about architecture. I think, ultimately, what I learned is that it wasn’t for me, but I was very passionate about green building, went into green building consulting. I did a lot of LEED certification, new projects, residential schools. It was fascinating. It was a great experience there with Green Dinosaur in Los Angeles.

About 2011, about ten years ago, I came across the concept of industrial ecology, industrial symbiosis, Circular Economy. I said I need to go to school to study this and I need to pick a place where I can do both the business side and the environmental side. Wind up going to Yale tremendous program and industrial ecology. Their business, their school management and a fantastic joint degree program where you could do both within 3 years and so it was a great opportunity.

I learned a lot and was planning on getting the Circular Economy after WBCSD. At that time, not many positions around in that, around 2015. There was 1 position that popped up, what was then called Safe and Sustainable. Materials with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development here in Geneva. That was the only position I applied to outside of the US.

On graduation day, got the call from the CEO here that I would have the offer to move out 3 months later after the permit was approved. After the summer, 5 days after getting married in Palm Springs, my wife and I flew out here. We’ve been in Geneva ever since. It’s been five and a half years working in Circular Economy.

John: Good for you. Your wife is a Californian also?

Brendan: Yep, also Los Angeles, born and raised.

John: That’s so fascinating. Does she work or is she a stay-at-home wife and mom and everything else?

Brendan: She’s been working up until our second was born last year. He was born the week before the COVID lockdown here in Geneva. At that point, she decided to give all her energy to the 2 kids here at home and is just now getting back into the workforce now that things are starting to clear up again.

John: Yeah, so interesting, Brendan. I taped an episode last night with a good friend of mine, long time friend named Rob Kaplan. Similar to you, he grew up on the east coast and him and his wife lived in Brooklyn and they moved to Singapore. Again, almost like you, almost all the way across the world, couldn’t be more different than Los Angeles, Geneva. Singapore and Brooklyn are different. Your generation with wives and children or moving to different locations to make the most impact but also to change the world and you’re not afraid to move and go to different societies and cultures. It’s so fascinating to see the parallels.

I didn’t think about it till you were just telling that whole story. Rob did the same thing and that didn’t happen in my generation, but your generation seems to be doing that. It’s fascinating.

Brendan: Yeah. [inaudible] Rob. Rob, we cross paths quite often. I think there’s something to the fact that it seems like the world is much more accessible to us. Just Internet and everything that’s come from that, that moving to Geneva sounds just about as exotic as you move in LA to New York and probably less frightening.

John: It’s so interesting.

Brendan: Yeah. It’s a different perspective, certainly.

John: Good for you. Talk a little bit about… Again, so people could find the WBCSD.org, but today, we’re also be going to be talking about other things, obviously. So, cep2030.org. Explain the Circular Electronics Partnership and what you’re trying to achieve and what you’re running over there in Geneva right now.

Brendan: Absolutely. Yeah. It actually started a little bit over a year ago where WBCSD with some other key organizations like the World Economic Forum, ITU, Responsible Business Alliance, Global electronic Sustainability Initiative and others, forgive me for not remembering all. Let’s bring our member companies together because what we do right now is we see e-waste as the fastest-growing waste stream in the world. This is not showing any slack signs of slowing down.

What we need is to get the industry to align behind a common vision for circular electronics and a roadmap for how it’ll achieve it. By bringing our companies together… Over the course of 2020, we brought together more than thirty companies with more than eighty professionals from those companies and the organization’s mention to develop this vision and roadmap. The idea is we need to have a common direction. We need to have a shared game plan of how we’re going to achieve that and understand, coming out of that roadmap, these forty actions that need to be taken through 2030 in order for the industry to achieve circularity.

As we started getting to the end of completing the roadmap process through 2020, all of which, this is all virtual. We had many conversations, meetings, discussions, virtual as everyone did [inaudible].

John: Wow.

Brendan: It would be a shame for this initiative to cease to exist after the publication of these 2 documents. There was a real opportunity for us to continue this community and build on top of it. We did just that. On March 18th, we published those 2 documents, the vision and the roadmap, both of which are available at cep2030.org. Then we kicked off with 6 projects and announced CEP as a standalone independent initiative. It’s hosted by WBCSD, however, still a collaboration between the 6 organizations.

Today, we have twenty member companies that are part of CEP. Very happy to have ERI as a significant player in the conversation involved in it. We’re getting started on even more initiatives right now. It’s an exciting time. It’s an incredibly important initiative and topic and it’s been a lot of fun to be part of it.

John: Let me ask you this. This is a related question to your point. You said e-waste is the fastest-growing solid-waste stream in the world. Brendan, explain this to me, your generation and I believe this, great thinkers and doers like Ron Gonen just wrote a book called The Waste-Free World. The theses basically is from 2020 to 2030, we’re going to see a generational shift from a linear to circular economy. Is it true, then is it fair to say… If we both agree that that’s going to happen and the world seems to be starting to agree that that shift is coming, then attacking the e-waste issue is paramount because if e-waste is the fastest-growing solid-waste stream in the world and we’re going to be moving the linear to circular economy, we got to hit the fastest-growing solid-waste stream to begin that process and work our way down. Is that not the right way to think about this?

Brendan: I certainly don’t think it’s a wrong way to think about it.

John: Okay.

Brendan: I would say it is a very important way stream. There’s multiple reasons for that. One is just the inherent value that’s embedded within these products[?].

John: Right.

Brendan: It is a very different conversation than the plastics one where their challenges that there really isn’t much value. In fact, you can even say there’s a negative value in trying to go after this material and turn it into something else. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t do anything about that problem, but this makes a stronger or something like e-waste.

The other angle to it is that when e-waste is handled improperly at end of life, it can be a real hazard to people and to the environment. That’s something that we certainly want to avoid is make sure that these products, these materials, these components are properly handled and [inaudible] life safely and responsibly. Looking at all this together, it is definitely one of the most important waste streams to go after.

John: You bring up the plastic issue. We brought up Rob Kaplan, a common friend of both of ours, and he’s attacking that down in Southeast Asia. The post-consumer plastic waste problem, very important to attack, like you said, but very different from the e-waste plastic. Unfortunately, they’ve been bundled together and the e-waste plastic is seen as a boogeyman, but I’m here to tell you, the size of our company, one of the larger brands in North America, we do forty to sixty truckloads of shredded clean plastic every month and it’s a hundred percent recyclable.

Separating those issues, I think, is very, very important to understand. Like you said, everything that comes out of the e-waste stream is fully recyclable it could go back to beneficial reuse, which is a great part of the story that doesn’t get told enough.

Brendan: Absolutely. No, it’s very easy to throw plastic into one conversation. We don’t talk about all the different applications of plastics, from buildings automotive, electronics like you mentioned. The first thing that comes to mind typically is around packaging in single-use plastics.

John: Right.

Brendan: There’s a lot of work that needs to be done on that. However, it’s a very different conversation and [inaudible] to circularity compared to electronics and built environment and automotive. It is important to think about these in different contexts. WBCSD, as an organization, we work with two hundred of the biggest companies in the world. Many of those B2B conversations are relatively straightforward and easy in terms of breaking those conversations apart. The companies get it. They know the value of moving towards circularity within packaging and then a separate conversation moving towards circularity in these more durable products.

It’s having that clear conversation with the everyday consumer and [inaudible] them a program to engage with and to close the loop on their products. That’s a little more difficult.

John: Your background is fascinating, and what you’re doing is so important. You’re a young guy, you have a big vision here, you’re sitting in an important position and you have brought together some fascinating organizations in Geneva. We were honored to join, honored, trust me, on [inaudible] the word. What’s your goal? As you see the second half of 2021, as we’re starting to come out of this COVID tragic, pandemic period, what’s your goals for the second half of 2021 and then beyond 2020 and beyond, Brendan?

Brendan. Yeah. Well, I think, right now, the top of everyone’s mind outside of COVID, as we come out of that, is climate change. We were talking about this just before…

John: Right.

Brendan: What we thought was years or maybe even decades down the road is in our face today. At WBCSD and personally, I see the Circular Economy as a critical element of climate change mitigation that we will not achieve the Paris target without moving towards a more circular economy. We will not reverse the tide on nature loss without moving towards a more circular economy. I want to see that conversation of circularity in Glasgow in the COP process. I want to see that more with the nature, COP 15 that was supposed to be in China this year. That needs to be a part of the conversation there as well.

Then I think, probably looking a little bit beyond the next 6 to 12 months, we need to start looking at how we can make these business models work at a mechanical level. What I mean by that is the accounting system, as we have it today, is built for linear economy. Whether you [inaudible] about depreciation, residual value and how that’s calculated, a lot of this reinforces why we take, make and waste. It’s going to be looking at those systems with a magnifying glass and going into detail and understanding, how can we change the existing system so that businesses are incentivized to be more circular instead of being linear?

John: That’s so fascinating. For our listeners and viewers who’ve just joined us, we’ve got Brendan Edgerton. He’s a director of Circular Economy for the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. You could find him and his great colleagues at www.wbcsd.org or also, please go to cep2030.org. Brendan, talk a little bit about the WBS- I mean, WBCSD. What is the World Business Council for Sustainable Development for those who don’t know?

Brendan: Yes. WBCSD, it’s a global CEO-led organization of over two hundred companies working together to accelerate to sustainable transition. Our mission is to make more sustainable business more successful. Our vision is 9 billion people living well within the means of the planet by 2050.

We work with our two hundred members around 6 different system transformations or programs as we offer them. That’s on cities and mobility, climate and energy, food and nature, people redefining value and then Circular Economy, which is the program that I receive. With our [inaudible] producing standards, guidelines, tools, advocacy, platforms and new insights to help them accelerate their transition to sustainability even faster.

Yeah, 1 great example of this is the Circular Transition Indicators which we published the first version last year, second version of it, this year. This is a methodology that companies can use to measure their circular performance from a product or material level all the way up to the company level. The idea is to not just understand your circular performance for performance sake but to understand what are the risks and opportunities to the business as a result. We’re thrilled with the amount of uptake we’re seeing with it, and it is purely business driven by business and for business.

John: For our listeners and viewers out there that want to participate and somehow help you continue your mission and journey and execute your vision, how can people, organizations, CEOs or other leaders, sustainability directors join in your efforts?

Brendan: Yeah, great question. I think you plugged the URL, wbcsd.org. There’s a lot of information on that website. I would say take a look at those 6 system transformations that I mentioned. Which ones of those fit in with your company’s sustainability objectives, your materiality assessment and reach out to us. All of our contact information is on the website for the team members involved.

We want the broader business community to reach out to us. We want to work with the private sector to drive that system transformation. Everything we do is by and for our members, but most of it is actually public. We want to bring in the companies to help us build that content and move faster. That’s the best place to start.

John: Going back to the Circular Electronics Partnership. You have twenty now members or so. What’s your goal within the next eighteen months? How many members do you want to have as you evolve that organization and that partnership?

Brendan: Yeah. With CEP, I think now, we have a great core group of companies that are represented across the value chain. We’d be thrilled to have more members, but that’s not our objective right now. We want to get to, as I mentioned, those 6 projects that we have. We’re getting started on aligning and harmonizing how companies talk about and qualify circular electronics products and services. [inaudible] harmonization that we can tie into the eco-labels and make sure there’s harmonization there. We can really drive some scale.

On the other hand, looking at other projects, how can we make the Basel Convention a bit more efficient and doing that through the digitalization of the Prior Informed Consent procedure? A lot of these technical subjects that can be a challenge for some companies. At the same time, we have an opportunity through this platform to create change and plug into some of these key stakeholders[?].

We’re fully focused on the projects now. As you mentioned, we’d be happy to have more members and invite everyone to check out cep2030.org to learn more about the vision, the roadmap and the organization. Yeah, we’re very excited to be in the middle of these projects now.

John: Because of the beauty of technology and also the pandemic truncating the adoption of Zoom in these meetings, you and I get to do this fun interview and feel like we’re in the same room. Will there become a point in time, post-COVID, that your organization will have in-person events as well and think tanks that will be happening in person for face-to-face meetings as well?

Brendan: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t think it’s going to go to the same scale that we probably all had before.

John: Right.

Brendan: Their value and getting together, especially in establishing a community like what we have in CEP. It would have been fantastic to get everyone together in March or April for that first meeting and be able to dig into some of those challenging something or the other.

John: Right.

Brendan: We are hopeful and we do expect that in, hopefully, not too distant future, we’ll have a chance to do that again. That maybe once or twice a year. We may even select different places globally to hold that meeting, but it is going to be important for the ongoing success and effectiveness of CEP that we do have a chance to get together.

John: Brendan, on two personal notes, now that you’re a father and obviously a husband as well, raising children in Geneva, as opposed to Europe, bringing your wife’s upbringing here in the United States, what are some of the interesting positives and benefits that both of you were thinking about as you now are starting to raise young children in a very international community and a worldwide hub but very different in many ways from the United States?

Brendan: Yeah. Now, there’s a lot to that. It’s a very good question. Well, one of the first things that come to mind is the health care system. It’s not cheap here like the US. It’s not inexpensive there either. However, you get what you pay for here. There’s excellent care. My wife, after delivering both children, was really staying in a five-star hotel for about 5 nights before she was allowed to go home. I think she had lobster after delivering our first child, Darren. It’s these types of things that you don’t come into this expecting, but you look, it’s available, you’re out here.

Similarly, the preschool system out here is very [inaudible]. Not everything is perfect at the same token. We miss about being home. Obviously, you can’t go into any Dodger games or Laker games. I find myself watching the championship series last year, getting up at 4 a.m., 5 a.m. to watch a game. You miss that, watch those games. At some point, you just have to do it. Yeah, there’s been a lot of positives about living out here, and it certainly opened both of our minds. It’s pretty wild to see our three-year-old speaking French, Spanish and English with equal capability. Here I am just knowing English.

John: I’m like you. All I know is English. What an advantage your children are going to have to be able to fluently speak, be bilingual or trilingual or even more than that. That to me is such a benefit and such a great background you get to give them in a foundation.

Brendan: Yeah, it’s very neat and it’s certainly a privilege to be out here. We’re soaking in everything we can.

John: Put back on your Circular Economy lens. Growing up in America and with again, your wife growing up here and then now, seeing the Circular Economy, how little we participated it during your youth and of course, my youth and even my children’s youth. Now, how generational was it already in place, in Europe, in Switzerland when you got there? What’s the compare and contrast with your Circular Economy lens on?

Brendan: I think to be honest, the biggest difference comes from the cultural differences in Europe. A lot of this type of stuff is driven by government and regulations by the European commission. They have a progressive agenda, aggressive at the same time, but it’s also what we need. Obviously, in the US, it’s very different. The government doesn’t have such a strong hand in these types of agendas. Businesses often looked at as taking some responsibility for driving things for themselves. That certainly plays a big role into why Circular Economy is so much more familiar over here.

Result businesses are doing much more. They’re trying to stay ahead of that bar that’s constantly being raised. The circular conversation is happening in the US, and we’ve seen over the past 3 years or so, it’s picking up steam. However, it’s going to be up to the private sector to drive most of that change. With pressure from investors, pressure from customers and even pressure from employees wanting to see their companies do more, hopefully, we see a little bit more of a level playing field over in the US compared to what we have here in Europe.

John: With the 6 initiatives that you launched this past spring, how long have you given yourself and your team has given itself to execute on those 6 top initiatives?

Brendan: Yeah, well, I think we’ll look at it this way. The first 6 initiatives and those are responding all to that roadmap where I mentioned those forty different [inaudible] that need to take. We have a while to go. We have ways to go. What that also means is we need to make progress on these 6 items. I think on a quarterly basis, we’re checking in with partners to see how the progress of those different projects are going. I think, after one year, we’ll have an honest assessment of what have we accomplished so far, where are we with respect to that roadmap and the forty actions that we outlined there, what do we need to tackle next?

Part of that last conversation is, who else do we need to work with? We have, as I mentioned, a great core group of companies, fantastic group of partners, but it may take working with others and though I suspect it will take working with partners in order to get through the rest of the roadmap. I would say there’s quarterly reflection points, but a year from March 18, 2021, we’ll want to take a look back on what we’ve done, where we’re at and assess things moving forward.

John: We’re going to have you back on to continue your shared journey of what’s going on at your great organization. For our listeners and viewers, Brendan. They want to find you, you go to www.cep2030.org, cep 2030.org. Brendan Edgerton, the director of Circular Economy, you’re making the world a better place, you’re making huge impacts. I’m grateful for you, and thank you for all you do for the world at large. Thanks again.

Brendan: Thank you very much, John. I really appreciate it.

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